MILAN – A rapid and large increase of government debt has been a general phenomenon in the advanced countries since the 2007-09 crisis: for the first time, the average debt/GDP ratio for OECD countries has surpassed 100%. Fiscal consolidation will weigh on growth prospects for two generations to come, and the welfare state as we have known it in Europe since World War II will have to be transformed, especially given a rapidly aging population.
But the eurozone debt crisis has distinctive features. Most importantly, while the average debt/GDP ratio is no higher than it is in other advanced countries, and consolidation efforts started earlier, the eurozone has been mired in a severe crisis of confidence for the past two years. This points to a systemic dimension of the crisis that cannot be reduced to profligate behavior by fiscal sinners.
Indeed, the Greek crisis exposed three main flaws in the monetary union itself. First, the system lacked effective arrangements to align fiscal and other economic policies. As long as enforcement of fiscal discipline is entrusted to an intergovernmental body, the problem is bound to reappear, limiting the credibility of common budgetary rules.
Moreover, financial markets underpriced private and sovereign credit risks, in the implicit belief that no one would fail, and that all debts would somehow be made whole, implying weak market discipline on borrowers.